Using proper names

David Ehrlich
Thu, 20 Dec 2007 19:08:26 PST
I have a dear friend who has trouble reconciling scientific names with common names.  I tell her a certain popular tree is Liquidambar and she’s OK with that until another friend tells her it’s a sweetgum.  “Oh, no,” she’ll say, “my friend who knows all about these things says it’s a Liquidambar!”  But her friend will insist.  Then she’s confused.
Last summer she told me she found out the name of a plant – it had the same name as a state, but she couldn’t remember which.  I told her to point it out to me.  She did.  “That’s an Acanthus,” I said.  “That’s it,” she said, “an Arkansas.”  (Maybe she’s a little too hooked on phonics.)
I used to despise common names.  But now, I have become somewhat fond and always amused by them.  It gives people a chance to wax nomenclaturally poetic, although botanists do that often enough with the scientific names as well.  What I do despise are the phony common names often found in flora, where the author invents a “common name” for a plant lacking one.  When a plant lacks a common name it’s either because the plant is not common or because few people are interested in it; the only people who are interested in it are precisely the people who would use the scientific name.

More information about the pbs mailing list